Those times when you realise you have been scrutinizing the great tights the girl in front is wearing, checking out the state of your pedicure and wondering how does that person on the next mat manage to always have such neat equipment when your own gets strewn all over the place!
It is great that you noticed, as that is the point at which you can return to the practice, bringing yourself back inside for the concentrated practice of yoga.
Drishta is a Sanskrit word meaning that which is seen, the visible, the manifested. Drishti is a verb - seeing, beholding. In yoga practice it comes to mean focused gaze, whether that is inward or outward. If we "take a drishti" we find a point of focus.
Thus when we are taking a balance pose such as tree pose, we might find a mark on the floor or wall in front of us and turn our gazing there, thus we have a drishti that helps us to balance. The moment we let our eyes wander, are distracted by the wobble of another person in the class, we might begin to lose our balance. The focused gaze keeps us steady.
In other asana practice we might keep our gaze on a part of the body. In Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2) the drishti often suggested is the middle finger of the leading hand. In some traditions it might be the thumb. In Paschimottonasana (seated straight legged forward bend) the drishti might be the toes.
The drishti may be ostensibly outward but there is always an element of the inner gaze in the practice. For this reason it is not a hard gaze but is practised with a soft focus. Practising drishti is actually turning our focus inward. By preventing us from being distracted by the people and objects around us drishti practice allows us to attend more closely to the nuances of the sensations of the body and the movement of energetic flows in the body. Practice with drishti and you might find that a whole class goes by and you have been in a zone of meditative felt sensation in movement and in stillness.
In this way drishti becomes a tool in the practice of pratyahara.
The Sanskrit word pratyahara means withdrawal. In yoga it is offered as a practice of withdrawal of the senses from external objects. Sage Patanjali gives pratyahara as the fifth limb of yoga. It is poised between four external practices, the yamas and niyamas (ethics and behaviours), asana (posture) and pranayama (practices of breath and energy), and three inner, meditative states of dharana (concentration) dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (realisiation).
The drishti, or soft-focussed gaze, loosens our attachment to all of the other sensory stimuli and moves us toward the practice of pratyahara in which we come inward, to the inner gaze.
Drishti is also a step on the path to dharana or concentration. The very act of focus is an act of concentration. The practice of drishti in an asana (posture) practice shifts posture and movement to the realm of meditation and is training in dharana that will come in handy when doing a seated, or still meditation.
If practising drishti eyes open in an asana practice the focus can be anywhere and it will need to shift as you go from one posture to another. The practice here is to be mindful of how it shifts. Some traditions give specific drishti points for different postures (Ashtanga Yoga created by Pattabis Jois gives nine). But what will work for one person may not for another. In Trikonasana (Triangle pose) and Parsvakonasana (side angle pose) you might find your drishti up, out or down. Where do you find balance, where are you turning inward? Go there!
A short drishti practice
Seated or standing, start with the hands in anjali mudra (prayer position) before the heart centre. Gaze softly at the finger tips.
Keep the gaze at the fingertips as you slowly point the fingers out, and then roll the hands to palms up, fingertips still touching.
Draw the hands apart opening arms wide and then raising them overhead as you try to keep the fingertips of both hands in view, note how they move to the peripheral vision. What happens when they disappear from view? Let the head turn up, eyes seeking the finger tips as you draw the hands together in anjali mudra (prayer hands) above the head. Your drishti will need to be content with the heels of the hands, but then as the hands draw back down to the heart, there are the fingertips in sight again.
Repeat a few times to see how it goes. You might then incorporate this into your asana practice next time you are on the mat.